GSMA, please loosen your grip on spectrum

23 February 2017

In a few days, Mobile World Congress, “the world’s largest gathering for the mobile industry, organised by the GSMA”, will take place in Barcelona. With that in mind, we’d like to offer up some thoughts and criticisms around the “mobile miracle” and the GSMA in general.

The mobile miracle has connected billions of people around the world to voice and data services in a relatively short period of time, especially when compared to fixed-line services. There is no debate around this. Nevertheless, there are major problems that the GSMA has not adequately addressed.

In a recent GSMA report, the Association finally admitted that 3000 people is the lower limit for a viable site. We also see stagnation in the growth of mobile services in that what is on offer is becoming higher bandwidth but is not expanding geographically. In terms of affordability, campaigns like Data Must Fall in South Africa, are just a hint of what it means to be poor and rely on a mobile broadband connection as your only way to communicate digitally.

Even if we assume it were possible to cover everyone with mobile technology, is that actually something we want? Shouldn’t participation in the digital world be something a bit more involved than what is available via mobile networks? As things stand, even major Internet players have to shimmy around the fact that most mobile data networks are too slow and expensive for many to use meaningfully. Hence the explosion of products like Facebook Lite and YouTube Go and Smart Offline.

As the GSMA is a membership group comprised of mobile operators, one of their main tasks is to lobbying national and international telecommunications regulators and policy-makers to ensure their members get what they want. And what they want is spectrum. In their words:

“Spectrum rights should be assigned to the services and operators that can generate the greatest benefit to society from the use of that spectrum.”

“Regulatory authorities should foster a transparent and stable licensing framework that prioritises exclusive access rights, promotes a high quality of service and encourages investment.”

“[There is] urgent need to secure additional, exclusive and harmonised spectrum for mobile broadband, and this continues to be the primary objective at the regional and international level.”

What is obvious from these policy indications is that the GSMA believes that mobile is the best way to connect people and that the status quo around exclusive spectrum licenses should be maintained. So again, while the mobile miracle is real, it cannot be ignored that over 3 billion people still do not have a way to participate in the Internet because they either can’t afford data costs or live in a place without coverage.

The GSMA does whatever it can to stymie attempts to regulate spectrum differently. As they themselves have admitted, mobile as currently designed and deployed by large operators, is not suitable for small populations. At the moment, those who are interested in covering these small populations have to either come to an agreement with an existing operator, create some other kind of network, or fight to create regulatory spaces so this can happen.

There are examples of all of the above, but not many. There need to be more. In order for that to happen, there needs to be a shift towards more inclusive regulation and a recognition by the GSMA and its members that they will benefit if more people are connected, even if they don’t do the connecting directly. With that recognition comes a responsibility to loosen their grip on spectrum. That does not seem likely to happen. Here is what GSMA has to say about it: “eliminating the cost of acquiring licensed spectrum to provide cellular-type mobile services could create an unfair advantage“. Unfair to whom? Is it fair that those who have not been provided coverage have to break the law if they want to self-provide? Attempts to introduce sharing mechanisms into how spectrum is distributed have also met with much resistance from the GSMA: “use of TV white space must not jeopardise the future of the UHF band, especially in the case of reallocation for exclusive mobile use“.

Unfortunately, the GSMA does not seem to be particularly interested in letting go, even as they recognize their particular approach does not work in all situations, especially for the poor and those in rural areas. The GSMA is also quite hypocritical when it comes to unlicensed spectrum, like WiFi. On the one hand they advocate for strict, unalienable spectrum assignments while on the other hand mobile operators currently offload more than half of their traffic via unlicensed frequencies, a figure expected to rise substantially over the coming years.

The hypocrisy here is that these same operators corner the market with exclusive spectrum to provide services to customers and then squat the commons (WiFi) to move that data around inside their infrastructure. To take things even father, there is an emerging technology called LTE-Unlicensed being developed. This technology, which hard-codes the above-mentioned hypocrisy into protocol, is pushed by something called the LTE-U Forum. The Forum is comprised of, you guessed it, a number of high-profile GSMA members.

So as the GSMA kicks off and you are enjoying your cocktail wieners, we’d like to send the Association a simple message. First, you aren’t going to go out of business by letting more people be involved in connectivity. In fact, you will probably make more money (Network Effect). Second, stop assuming that the mobile miracle will have a second coming and connect the remaining billions. You’ve already said as much is not possible. So please, loosen your grip on spectrum.